Remarks by Tony Leon to the Knysna Literary Festival: on "Opposite Mandela" - South Africa Now v Then, Friday, March 20 2015
There is much doom and gloom in the air, and certainly across the airwaves if you listen to the radio, of South Africa right now. Our currency has crashed by no less than 90% since April 2011 measured against the dollar; parliament is in chaos; the public service which has ballooned in numbers from 1 million on 1994 to 3.1m people today and one in three jobs in the economy is paid for by the taxpayer. Yet the Post Office no longer delivers letters, Eskom is on the constant verge of blackouts and is in the midst of a boardroom war while it is technically insolvent. Public assets are looted and the currency is debauched.
Helen Suzman always used to tell me: Always end your list of problems with a positive note. "Talk about our infrastructure!" she suggested. Well I'll pass on that. But on the Woody Allen principle that "two negatives make a positive" we have much to be positive about!
But let me take you back in time to a period in our very recent history reflected in the pages of my book which is under discussion at this Festival "Opposite Mandela- Encounters with South Africa's Icon".
The question arises why write another book on Mandela, especially since I was neither his jailer, nor his secretary, and indeed was far away from his trenches in the struggle? The short answer is ‘go and read the book!'.
The longer answer is that I hope that my account from the moment I met him when he invited me to his home in my then constituency of Houghton for dinner in August 1992 to our leave taking in Bishopscourt (interesting, as I once observed in public, how Mandela had a preference for living in DA-controlled areas!) some fourteen years later sheds some direct light on how Mandela in his person and in his presidency managed, at one and the same time, to be both the most fierce partisan for the ANC and someone who at critical and compelling moments managed to lift his and the nation's sights.
He did this often above, even against, the party interest to create the outlines and the contours of a country where national identity and the institutions crucial as ramparts of independence against an all-powerful state would be respected and cherished.
In that sense his leadership is much missed today and when I write, and we reflect, on those times it is almost as though we were living in a different country.
In order not to tell you everything between the covers of the book, let me just recount some remarkable moments of those times, which stand in such contrast to the presidency of today. Our current president spends a great deal of time and many state resources escaping (‘Harry Houdini-like' as I termed it another book) from the coils of corruption and other charges he avoided in order to become president, and which might yet eject him from the throne of power if they are reinstated. Mandela in contrast, had a high regard for the constitution, which he both championed and signed into law. He also upheld judicial processes, even those which went against him.
I always quote (very useful advice for all politicians) the wisdom of my favourite philosopher Allen, Woody Allen that is. He said, "most of life is about showing up." So aside from meeting the good and the great, and the not so great, during my political career, I was also in a brief and unhappy political association (one of several) with the late Dr Louis Luyt. You might recall that he had a bullying tendency, in addition to his gifts for rugby administration. In fact both theses aspects of his life and career collided with the Mandela presidency. As I describe it into the book-
Despite Mandela's Invictus moments in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Luyt deeply resented government attempts to transform and deracialise South African rugby, and its appointment of a commission of inquiry into Luyt's conduct of rugby affairs.
There certainly were legitimate reasons to oppose the ANC's attempts to control all elements of society, including sport. But Luyt did not content himself with using the judicial process to do so. His legal team and the trial judge William de Villiers in March 1998 subpoenaed the president to testify in court personally.
In typical fashion, although Mandela told the media before taking the stand that ‘his blood boiled at being forced into court' - the first president ever obliged to so defend an executive decision - he did so ‘out of respect for the administration of justice'. The court, headed by an old order jurist, ultimately found in Luyt's favour and against Mandela. But the wider point was far more important: the president upheld judicial processes, even those that went against him.
And, while the exceptions, such as Mafikeng, were often as revealing and important as the general thrust of Mandela's leadership, it remains incontestable that as president he transcended the narrow partisan and racial divisions of South Africa. His successor, however, as Mbeki's ill-starred presidency would show, tended to reinforce them.
But he had set out, through deeds rather than words, precisely this approach well before that judgment at the tail-end of his presidency.
For example, Ray Hartley, in his lively account of the same period, Ragged Glory-The Rainbow Nation in Black and White, recounts another judicial matter on which he was on the receiving end of another court case, launched against his government by the National Party Premier of the Western Cape, Hernus Kriel (whom incidentally I recruited into the Democratic Party in May 2000, some two months before the formation of the Democratic Alliance).
Kriel had obliged the Constitutional Court to rule in the Province's favour that the national government had no right to interfere with the composition of a provincial demarcation board as it had attempted to do through regulation. Chief Justice Chaskalson held-
Constitutional cases cannot be decided on the basis that parliament or the president acted in good faith or on the basis that there was no objection to action taken at the time that it was carried out. It is of crucial importance at this early stage of the development of our new constitutional order, to establish respect for the principle that the Constitution is supreme...Our duty (as the Constitutional Court) is to declare legislative and executive action, which is inconsistent with the Constitution to be invalid, and then to deal with the consequences of the invalidity..."
Important and, hopefully, as imperishable as that judgment remains equally significant was Mandela's response to it as recounted by the author:
Mandela called a press conference at his Houghton home. Unusually, he addressed us reporters in the shade of a tree on his front lawn. The government, he said, totally accepted the ruling and would abide by it. That the supremacy of the Constitution and the rulings of the highest court was not questioned even when it eroded the government's power, represented a landmark for the country.
(Ray Harley: Ragged Glory Jonathan Ball. 2014 pp52-53).
But the template for this presidential predisposition had been forged by Mandela before he assumed office. As I recount in the introduction to my book, ‘some among us' to use a favourite phrase, especially those not in the middle aged tendency of which I am now alas a member, might look back with imagined nostalgia at the glories around these parts at the dawn of our democracy on 27 April 1994. It was anything but that, as I recall in the book in order to draw out another exceptional characteristic of Mandela's leadership.
There was another critical moment just after the 1994 elections, during its chaotic counting process. Today South Africa's first democratic election is remembered in reverential terms, even tinged with a touch of the miraculous. For those of us involved in it, and even for others who can remember its detail, it was a far more jagged affair, with its mess of unreconciled ballots, pirate voting stations and other jarring irregularities.
During the long tallying process, the very future hung in the balance due to extreme electoral infringements in key places. At one point, senior ANC officials met in Johannesburg and demanded the party take action, and at least call a press conference, concerning what many insiders apparently regarded as ‘grand theft', which they believed had robbed the party of victory in KwaZulu-Natal and elsewhere. An eyewitness at the meeting describes its conclusion:
Mandela had said nothing during the discussion. Then he brought the room to a full stop. ‘Tell the comrades to cancel the press conference. We will not do anything to make the election illegitimate. The ANC will not say the election is not "free and fair". Prepare our people in Natal and the Western Cape to lose.'
He followed through on this example when, towards the end of his presidency, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission prepared to publish its interim report in October 1998, and both his predecessor and successor as president attempted legal action either to amend or to suppress its findings. In contrast, Mandela said the equivalent of ‘publish and be damned'. As his authorised biographer, Anthony Sampson, noted: ‘As head of state he saw himself as having loyalties which went beyond the ANC ...'[i]
I suppose the bottom line here is that we can survive both policies and presidents, good and bad, provided we maintain , respect and replenish the rule of law, without which no democratically successful or economically prosperous society has ever endured. This was brought home, in dramatic form, in another far more assured democracy than our own, the United States, in December 2000, in an even more nail-biting, and arguably even more irregular, election than our 1994 poll.
You might recall that ‘the loser' there Al Gore had actually won the popular vote by margin of 500 000 votes, against his opponent George W Bush, and the entire outcome of the contest depended on the electoral college and the chaotic counting process in just one state, Florida. Ultimately after weeks of inconclusive results there, the matter reached the US Supreme Court which in an extraordinary and unprecedented and highly disputed decision (where the court split 5-4 exactly on the lines of whether the Justices were appointed by either a Democrat or a Republican president) effectively awarded the election to Bush.
Al Gore's final concession speech, was as one observer noted, the equivalent of ‘taking a bullet for your country.' He did not cast aspersions on the Justices, question their competence or bias. Instead he said, "This is America, and we put country before party." Indeed, as Thomas Friedman noted,
Because the Rule of Law is most reinforced when-even though it may have been imposed wrongly or with bias - the recipient of the judgment accepts it, and the system behind it, as final and legitimate. Only in that way -only when we reaffirm our fidelity to the legal system, even though it rules against us -can the system endure, improve, and learn from its mistakes.
If Mandela represents, by and large and notwithstanding some lapses and blemishes which I also recount in my account of him, politics at his best and most correct and inspiring, let me return to our situation today.
Where you stand on an issue depends on where you sit.
It's really quite amazing how the very same set of facts lead to radically different conclusions about what they mean. Take the current travails afflicting South Africa at the moment. It's a long and depressing list and you're spoilt for choice on which to highlight.
I mentioned a list of them at the beginning of this talk and could add perhaps another: A flurry of laws are excavating under the foundations so carefully constructed at Kempton Park in the 1990's.
All the political crises we face would be manageable were they not coinciding with an economic one at the same time: Our growth rate is now near the water line and drastically reduced from the 5% achievement of a decade ago, and the once mighty tripartite alliance has been rent asunder.
Here Mandela and his choices provide a further frame of reference: The day after Nelson Mandela died in December last year, the parliamentary Speaker of his time, Dr Frene Ginwala noted that in place of his normal batik style shirts, "He always wore a suit to Parliament as a sign of his respect for the institution." And it wasn't just his sartorial choices which mattered both there and in the courts of law. He pitched up, did his duty, even took the occasional judicial and political bullet which went against him.
In Parliament recently- especially the fateful decision to send the police inside its inner sanctum - show how far we have fallen since then, not least in our own estimation and in the eyes of the world, which has long since moved on beyond the ‘miracle rising' narrative we once provided to a globe in need of heroes.
It is one thing to proclaim and memorialise Mandela. It is quite another, and for our long term democratic health far more important, to use the examples from his presidency. Whichever side of the political aisle you sit on, we should, with a renewed sense of urgency, use them as a road map to repair the many breaches in our constitutional path since he left office.
Tony Leon is the author of Opposite Mandela: Encounter's with South Africa's Icon (see Kindle edition here)
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